Skip to main content

Turkey doubles down on coal despite European efforts to decarbonize

Turkey has been importing around three quarters of its coal from Russia as prices have fallen since the Ukraine war began in Feb. 2022.
BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

Turkey is bucking the trend by increasing its share of coal-powered electricity even as the European Union drastically reduces its reliance on the dirty fossil fuel in efforts to decarbonize and meet climate goals.

The EU is looking to phase out coal by 2040 as it moves to greener energy sources. Turkey, which is not part of the bloc, has set a net zero target for 2053 but no specific goal for the fossil fuel transition. 

A report published by the global energy think tank Ember Tuesday found that in 2013, electricity generation by coal accounted for 25% of the power generation of both Turkey and the EU. Today that figure has fallen to 12% in the 27-member bloc and increased to 36% in Turkey.

In 2023, Turkey’s coal-based electricity production reached a record level of 118 terawatt hours, making it the second-highest producer from coal in Europe. Turkey overtook Poland, which is now in third place. Germany is the current highest producer in Europe.

Europe's largest economy has been trying to phase out coal but reopened several mothballed facilities after Russia invaded Ukraine in Feb. 2022. Europe had previously been heavily reliant on Russian energy, but the EU sanctions on Russia following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine included buying commodities from the country.

Ufuk Alparslan, Ember's regional lead for Turkey, Ukraine and the Western Balkans, told Al-Monitor, "It is highly probable that Turkey will surpass all other European countries to become the leading coal power-generating nation in Europe in 2024. While other coal-dependent countries like Germany and Poland are gradually veering away from this dirty energy source, Turkey is heading in the opposite direction."

Cheap Russian coal

Turkey has become increasingly reliant on Russia for coal imports despite the war in Ukraine. The report read that in 2023, 73% of Ankara’s coal imports were from Moscow. 

Following Western sanctions on Russia in 2022, the price of Russian coal dropped, meaning that gas was no longer cheaper to burn. Turkey took advantage of the market conditions as more than 15 million tons of coal destined for Germany, the Netherlands and other EU countries went to Turkey. 

Turkey spent $3.7 billion on imported coal for electricity generation in 2023, according to the report. 

The think tank suggested that Turkey could reduce its dependence on imported fuels by accelerating renewable energy installations, given the country’s high solar and wind energy potential. 

However, the report revealed that Turkey's wind generation fell for the first time, and to the lowest level in 13 years in 2023.

The country added two gigawatts of solar power capacity in 2023, increasing solar’s share of total electricity generation from 4.9% in 2022 to 5.7% in 2023. The United Kingdom and Switzerland, which enjoy significantly less sunshine than Turkey does, were the country’s closest solar competitors at 4.6% and 6.6%, respectively.

The think tank said Turkey’s electricity consumption continued to fall last year, decreasing by two terawatt hours to 326.6 in 2023 compared to 328.7 in 2022, mainly due to slower industrial activity. 

Alparslan said that while Turkey's 2053 net zero target persists, it lacks support in the Nationally Determined Contribution submitted under the Paris Agreement. NDCs are each country's individual climate action plans to cut emissions and adapt to climate change.

"Astonishingly, Turkey's NDC envisions a 23% increase in emissions by 2030, in comparison to the latest annual emission reported in 2021. Moreover, the same NDC puts forth the notion of emissions peaking by 2038, leaving us puzzled as to how achieving net zero by 2053 can be possible when emissions are predicted to rise until 2038," Alparslan said.

Turkey is endowed with vast renewable energy resources with a staggering 120 gigawatts of potential rooftop solar power, the analyst noted. That figure is 10 times the current installed solar capacity. 

"By implementing a dedicated policy that supports residential and community solar, Turkey can greatly accelerate its transition towards green energy. Such a green transition, driven by the proactive involvement of individuals, would not only significantly diminish the country's overwhelming reliance on fossil fuel imports but also pave the way for a flourishing economic development," Alparslan added.

He added that Turkey's expansive reservoirs offer the perfect conditions for floating solar power plants. Just by utilizing a mere 3% of the surface of the reservoir behind Ataturk Dam, the largest dam in the country, Turkey can create over two gigawatts of floating solar capacity. He suggested a floating solar auction organized by the government could generate more income for Turkey.